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Hoffman honors ailing catcher after big save

Bernie Wilson Associated Press

SAN DIEGO – Trevor Hoffman has 300 baseballs displayed on one wall in his home, and another 125 stashed in a cupboard underneath, where they’ll stay until the closer figures out what to do with them.

“It’s not a bad wall,” Hoffman said Wednesday night after earning his 425th save to move into sole possession of second place on the career list.

Hoffman has kept a ball from each of his saves, dating to 1993 when he was a rookie, and he’s sure to add dozens more. Only Lee Smith, with 478 saves, is ahead of him. By the time Hoffman stashes 54 more balls into that cupboard, he’ll be at the top of the list.

Hoffman writes the date, save number, score and opponent on each ball. If something significant happens, he’ll jot that down, too.

“Kind of like a diary, you know?” Hoffman said.

The 425th ball will be special because it will carry a note about longtime bullpen catcher Mark Merila, who for the second time in 11 years is battling a brain tumor. Merila hasn’t traveled with the Padres since he had a seizure while riding a subway to Shea Stadium for a game against the New York Mets on July 19.

But he has been working home games, so he was there to warm up Hoffman before the bullpen ace saved a 7-4 win over the Houston Astros to break a tie with John Franco.

“Mark is going through so much,” said Hoffman, who has 32 saves in 34 chances this year. “There’s a lot of significance in really the hard work I get accolades for. He’s the guy that’s behind the scenes that has much more on his shoulders than going out and pitching a ballgame.

“He was happy I wasn’t able to get it in Atlanta or Florida,” Hoffman said. “I might actually have him sign it.”

Hoffman has had several constants in his career – a nasty change-up, a high leg kick, a menacing glare and Merila. Merila became San Diego’s bullpen catcher in 1996, so he’s warmed up Hoffman for the majority of his saves.

“To be here and be a part of this is really special for me,” said Merila, who began chemotherapy on Thursday in Los Angeles.

“He takes great pride in it,” Hoffman said. “He’s always attentive to the game situation, knows when we’re going to probably crank ‘er up a little bit more than normal based on the situation. There’s no dialogue; he’s there before I ever get there. Kind of like you see guys in the Home Run Derby. They bring in their own batting practice pitcher. There’s a select comfort you get from somebody.”

In 1994, while Merila was playing for the University of Minnesota, a tumor in the same spot in the left side of his brain caused a seizure. He played two seasons in the Padres’ minor league system, then took the job as bullpen catcher and became friends with Hoffman.

Hoffman’s first two saves came with Florida, and the rest have been with San Diego after he was obtained on June 24, 1993, in a then-unpopular trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Marlins.

Hoffman remains humble about his accomplishments, but does acknowledge that Smith, who retired in July 1997, is within sight.

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